For this Critical Issues Report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with police officials from three agencies about the impact of the pandemic and public scrutiny of policing on their recruiting processes.

Key Takeaways

-- Cadet and explorer programs are an important pathway for recruiting a diverse workforce with local roots.

-- Agencies should remove unnecessary obstacles to applying. For example, application fees may deter some qualified candidates from applying to the agency.

-- Social media platforms are an important avenue for attracting recruits. This is particularly true during the pandemic, when face-to-face contact is difficult.

-- Because of their strong recruitment strategies, the agencies interviewed for this report are not seeing a drop in applicants due to the COVID pandemic or recent controversies about policing. 

Lansing, Michigan Lieutenant Matthew Kreft:

With Our Cadet and Explorer Programs, We Recruit Candidates Like Athletes

We haven’t had much of a letdown in recruiting this year. Years ago, we started investing in our own “farm system” through the use of explorers and cadets. Even this past year, when we have seen a bit of a downturn in applications, we’ve been able to rely on our own internal candidates from our explorers, cadets, and interns to fill our ranks. We hired about 10 of them this past year, and for an agency our size that is pretty good.

Our recruiting pathway is multifaceted. It stems from our youth engagement, and getting them into the explorer program. We have about 30 youths, who we start at about age 14. They’re brought into the department, given hands-on instruction a couple times a month, participate in ride-alongs and community events, and they help as actors in scenario training. We stick with them and help them progress through their high school and college years. By the time they’re 18 or 19, we’re securing them employment as a cadet, and when they hit 21 we’re sending them to the academy. I have about a dozen examples on the department of kids who started at 14 or 15 and locked their career in at that point.

When we go to career fairs and make contact with people, we make ourselves available for phone calls, we send text messages, and we assist with the application process and interview prep. It’s not just handing out applications and walking away. We try to use a personal touch with everyone we come across. And we recruit them just like an athlete. We schedule ride-alongs, bring them in for a facilities tour, and may have them participate in some training.

We do a lot of different things and try to source talent from a lot of different areas. I think that’s why we’re one of the few agencies in Michigan that’s not scrambling, and sometimes settling, for candidates.

Chuck Wexler: Have you been able to recruit a diverse workforce?

Lt. Kreft: We’d like to do more minority hiring, but the best thing about our internal farm system is that we’re hiring 50-60% from minority communities. Lansing is very diverse, and we have folks from all over the world who settle here when they come to America. We’re hiring a lot of people whose parents come here as first-generation Americans and get their kids involved in the explorer program. We’re seeing those kids become adults and represent those communities within our police department.

Wexler: Is the program beneficial even when the explorers don’t become officers?

Lt. Kreft:  We’ve had explorers decide to become dispatchers, work in our jail, or become crime analysts. The folks who come through these programs are really our best advocates in the community. It’s like the citizens police academy, but they’ve been in it for two years. They get a chance to learn an officer’s lifestyle, see the training, and generally get an inside look at our agency.

There are plenty of people who come through these programs and decide not to go into law enforcement. To be honest, I’m just as happy for them. I’d hate for someone to get all the way through training, get out into field training on the street, and then decide it’s not for them. So we offer it as a “try it before you buy it.” 

Naperville, Illinois Chief Robert Marshall:

We Usually Have 15 to 20 Interns, and Most Become Officers

We have a written policy that governs our recruitment plan. We put that together after the recent PERF report about the police workforce. We looked at our data on police officer applicants from the last couple of years. We were disappointed in the number of minority applicants who were coming to Naperville to take our test. So we made some changes in how we planned to recruit for 2020, and we’re in the process of giving a test this month.

One key thing we did was remove the application fee. In the past, anyone who applied to the Naperville Police Department had to pay $45. We thought that created a disparate impact, especially on individuals who are young and in college.

We increased our presence on social media. We worked with our local TV station to assemble a recruitment video that we put on YouTube.

We have a very robust internship program. At any time we’ll have 15 to 20 interns working with our training division, and the majority of our interns end up being hired by our department. They look at our culture and our community and decide they want to serve here. Our interns and community service officers get preference points when they get onto the eligibility list.

Our Board of Fire and Police just approved lateral transfers, so we can also recruit potential candidates from other agencies and other states.

This year we had 800 individuals express an interest in becoming Naperville police officers, and 400 are going through the testing process now.

One of our strategies has been to work with the community leaders, especially since the protests started. The staff and I have been doing a lot of community outreach, and we’ve challenged the community leaders, particularly from minority communities, to work with us to increase our applicant pool.

Wexler:  Has the pandemic or the national scrutiny on policing impacted your hiring?

Chief Marshall: Based on the numbers, we have more people interested in becoming a police officer. The pandemic has impacted our ability to get out to the colleges. In Naperville, you have to have a four-year degree by the time you’re hired, so a lot of our recruitment has been through universities and colleges. Obviously we’ve had to curtail our visits, so we became more active in our online recruitment efforts. 

Naperville, Illinois Deputy Chief Jason Arres:

Our Applications Doubled after the Minneapolis Protests Began

I tracked how many applications came in after the events in Minneapolis. We were around 430 applications, and they doubled after the protests started. We have a pretty extensive background process, and I’m going to add a question to that interview to try to determine why we continued to receive so many applications after Minneapolis. I think some of it may be a “call to action,” and wanting to be a part of the community and fixing the perceived problems.

Wexler:  How have you used social media to increase applications?

Deputy Chief Arres:  I think it’s about the frequency. Chief Marshall brought a civilian communications specialist in, and we’ve conducted more regular social media campaigns and blitzes and asked others to share the message.

The two biggest changes we’ve made were waiving the application fee and how frequently we use social media.

Ben Haiman, Executive Director for Professional Development, Washington, DC Metropolitan Police:

COVID Has Required Some Changes in Our Process, But Our Recruiting Remains Strong

Wexler:  You switched to virtual screening during your application process. Has that been as effective as in-person screening?

Ben Haiman: Yes, in March we transitioned from in-person to virtual screening. We’re receiving about 400-500 interest cards per week, and about 100-150 people test per week. The transition to the virtual process was fairly seamless. The challenge is that our existing prospect day combined multiple hiring events, from the background screening, to the written exam, to the physical test. Now we’ve had to unpack those and rearrange them a bit.

Candidates express their interest through an online application. Then they email in a screening packet. An investigator will run through that packet virtually with the candidate to make a suitability determination. Then we’ll have them test at one of our testing sites in 29 states across the country. Assuming they pass, we’ll then route them through the remainder of the background process.

One benefit is that we’ve had an increased number of people submitting their preliminary information. The downside is that it’s a little less efficient than when candidates could complete a significant portion of the process in a single day.

During the pandemic we’ve been able to offer our test virtually, meaning candidates are able to complete it at home using remote proctoring. It’s definitely more convenient for the candidate. If they don’t want to go to a testing site or are in a state without a testing site, they can complete that examination from home.

Wexler: Has your minority recruiting been impacted by the George Floyd incident and subsequent protests? And what about COVID?

Ben Haiman: We have not seen any change in the diversity of our applicants. Our agency is approximately 65% minority officers and 23% women. We have not seen that  change in recent months. We’re still seeing a very diverse group of candidates express interest. We’re trying to increase the number of women interested in serving with our agency. Our cadet program has helped us do that.

When COVID initially hit, we saw our application numbers trail off for the first week, then a quick resurgence. Through April and May we had really strong application numbers. Part of what we’re trying to do now is disaggregate our process changes from other factors, such as unemployment, that may have brought in more applications. In June, July, and August, those numbers started to plateau. Now we’re starting to see a slight increase again.

So I cannot draw any direct correlations between the number of people wanting to apply and the demonstrations and unrest. But anecdotally, we have had several individuals, I believe four, who have declined offers, citing unrest and concerns for their safety in the law enforcement profession. In 10 years of working on law enforcement hiring, I can’t remember that many people who made it that far in the process deciding it wasn’t for them. That’s certainly an alarming factor that I’m keeping my eye on. I don’t know if that’s just four individuals who happened to get cold feet, but it’s certainly different and I think speaks to the times that our officers are operating in.

Wexler: What changes did the D.C. Council make to the cadet program?

Ben Haiman:  The mayor had initially proposed expanding the cadet program from 100 cadets to 200 cadets. In her final budget, she decreased that to 150 cadets due to the current budget environment. The D.C. Council did not support increasing to that 150 number, and they maintained funding for the 100 cadets.

We’re backfilling back up to the 100-cadet mark. The program is 92% minority, 50% women, and 100% from the District, so as we looked to the future of hiring, we’d like to be able to continue to expand that program. Even if we’re in a position where we’re not hiring police officers for the next year, which is the position the District will be in, we should still be hiring cadets. In two or three years, when those cadets matriculate and turn into police positions, we want to be hiring women, individuals with diverse backgrounds, and District residents. 


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.